By the way: Chandigarh’s beloved cigarette-seller, Surdas must retake his spot near Sector 17
Surdas let out a hearty laugh, involving everyone around. It was a laughter you don’t expect from an old, frail, blind man selling cigarettes by the road. Completely out of character.punjab Updated: Jul 20, 2017 23:01 IST
Surdas is what we called him. No one knew who gave him that name. But everyone knew why. He was blind, like the 15th-century mystic poet of the same name who wrote lyrics in praise of Lord Krishna and his antics. Our Surdas had more worldly duties. He sold cigarettes and stuff by the road opposite the Sector-17 bus stand during night time.
The year was 2003. He still had some black amid the grey on his head. I noticed that. What I did not notice was that he could not see. His head was down. The nimble fingers counted money swiftly. The right arm stretched out towards the right packet and took one cigarette out neatly. And he returned the change – three coins of a rupee each – in a flash. Some people take longer than that to light a cigarette. The man was fun to watch anyway.
And then he craned his neck upwards, responding to ‘thank you, Baba-ji’. He wasn’t used to routine courtesy. I wasn’t used to spotting holes where you have eyes. Two bog hollows right under his forehead. Startled is a weak word; horrified, too strong. I was amazed. How is this possible?
Others who huddled around his makeshift shop realised that I was a first-timer. “Hai na kamaal? Isn’t this amazing?” chirped one, and then turned to him, “Surdas, the boy didn’t realise you are blind!”
Surdas let out a hearty laugh, involving everyone around. It was a laughter you don’t expect from an old, frail, blind man selling cigarettes by the road. Completely out of character. Shouldn’t he be submissive and pitiable? I smiled and moved on. Only to return the next night.
This was the beginning of a decadelong relationship, during which I discovered that this forgotten cultural marker of Chandigarh did not fit any stereotype. First things first, he did not keep the change. No matter how politely you told him to. Not a rupee. “I earn every meal, or I don’t eat,” he told me.
Surdas was not his name. He clarified that only to some of his customers. He did not tell me his real name. He did not like too much of respect either. So, we could call him Baba but not Baba-ji, as the ‘ji’ made him feel odd and old.
He did not like to talk about his blindness. Except that one time close to Diwali, when I let my curiosity cross over into the insensitive territory and asked him: “Baba, were you always blind? Or, did you lose your eyesight in an accident or something?”
“Why do you ask?” he replied.
“Nothing. Generally. There are such pretty lights tonight. I wonder if you’ve ever seen them.”
“I’ve seen much more than mere lights. And now I only get to touch what I got to see earlier. But, well, even people with vision sometimes like to do it with eyes closed,” he replied.
Surdas was talking dirty. Or was it my mind?
He sensed my confusion, and added, “My son is arranging for some pleasure for me tonight. I don’t want to get too tired sitting here, cross-legged, for hours. Aurat ko bhi khushi milni chahiye (The woman must get pleasure too).”
I wasn’t sure if the old man was playing tricks with my head. But he told me not to tell anyone: “My wife is long dead. Still, it’s between you and me.”
The man was obsessed with the subject. Sometimes, instructions were issued tersely. “Band kar do yeh brand. Isse napunsakta hoti hai,” he told me. He wanted me to change my brand of cigarettes to avoid turning impotent.
He did not smoke. “I am already 60-something years old. I cannot afford to lose my powers to some puffs of smoke, you know. Taakat bacha ke rakhta hun (I save up my strength).”
That was five years ago. It was one of those nights when policemen were carrying out their monthly routine of asking all the nightly vendors to pack up. Technically, the vendors were encroachers. But the police did not mind, except occasional formality.
The formality was going on smoothly until one of the cops turned towards Surdas. He probably didn’t know that Baba was blind, and that his customers were not just customers.
As soon as the cop grabbed him by the arm and asked him, rudely, to leave, a legion of devotees gathered. How dare he touch our old man!
He backed off, but an angry argument ensued. Voices were raised, I-cards and fists flashed, and finally some older cops intervened, telling the young constable that Baba Surdas must never be bothered.
By the time we turned around, Baba had left. Maybe his son, who used to pick and drop him in his rickshaw every night, had got wind. Perhaps, he just walked off. He never returned. Other vendors said he shifted to the Sector-43 bus stand road. But I haven’t found there either. Is he dead? Why have I been referring to him in the past tense? After all, his spot on the road is still not taken by any other vendor. Maybe, someday, Surdas will return.